Hours of sitting can make anyone’s back feel terrible—but if you already suffer from back pain, sitting all day can really exacerbate symptoms. The truth is, sitting puts a lot more pressure on your back than standing does—which probably seems counterintuitive, since sitting’s considered a pretty relaxing position. But it’s really the way we sit that often leads to back strain and misalignment in the neck, spine, and hips—not the best news for anyone with a desk job, long commute, or pretty much any reason to sit for extended periods of time. You can’t not go to work, but you can find ways to beat distracting, debilitating aches and pains, including practicing good posture while sitting.
“The ideal sitting posture occurs when we’re aligned in a way that promotes an active core,” says Kate Esler, a physical therapist at SPEAR physical therapy in New York City. “We want our thoracic cage to line up with our pelvis (our base of support). The diaphragm (yes, that’s a core muscle!), transverse abdominis, and pelvic floor are the key core stabilizers needed to create ideal posture.”
Unfortunately, it’s natural to slouch or sit leaning too far forward—especially after being seated for a while. When you’re hunched over, you’re no longer using those stabilizing core muscles, leading to extra pressure on your discs and back joints. Here’s an easy trick to train yourself to sit upright with proper posture and core engagement—no fancy equipment or doctor’s note required.
1. Roll up a towel, thick scarf, sweatshirt, or even a jacket so it’s about six inches thick in diameter (you may need to fold it in half lengthwise before rolling to make sure it’s thick enough).
2. Sit up tall, as close to the back of the chair as possible, with both feet flat on the ground. Your thighs should be parallel to the ground, and perpendicular to your shins and upper body.
3. Once seated correctly, take the rolled up towel, etc. (a small bolster pillow works too!), and shove it way down, snugly between the chair back and your belt level. “The towel acts as a cue to prevent slouching (which puts pressure on your joints and discs) and promotes core engagement through proper spinal alignment,” Esler says.
4. Note how far down to place the towel: “The goal is to stabilize where your lumbar spine meets your pelvis,” Esler says. “The mistake people make most often is putting the support too high causing over extension of the back.” In other words, don’t rest it in the natural lower curve of your back—even though it feels like it would fit perfectly there.
5. Bonus tip: Resist the urge to cross your legs, which can lead to lopsidedness in the pelvis and spine over time and worsen pain.
Adding a little homemade lumbar support to your desk chair, plane seat, or car seat will help you maintain spinal alignment, reduce extra pressure on your vertebrae, and force your deep, supportive ab muscles to turn on. But if you try this hack and still have no luck, don’t suffer in silence. “A physical therapist can provide suggestions to modify your work setup and design a program of exercises to relieve pain and strengthen your core,” Esler says. “Also, ask your workplace if they provide ergonomic assessments. Sometimes relieving pain can be as easy as adjusting your seat dimensions or desk and computer height.”